Monday, August 21, 2017

Loose Bannon: Watch Fox Get Primaried by Breitbart

Steve Bannon is out at the White House, and that may just mean that the threat he poses to the White House has just begun. Here is Steve on Steve Bannon, loose cannon.

One day President Trump asserts a moral equivalency between neo-Nazis, anti-Semites, and violent racists relative to the protestors who are reviled by their bigotry, and two days later he fires Steve Bannon.

What is a white supremacist to think?

Perhaps this is just another instance of “reality Imitates reality tv,” but who would have predicted that the words “You’re fired” would be also be the signature motif of Donald Trump’s White House?  Between Spicer, Priebus, Scaramucci, and now Bannon, Donald Trump has recently set a pace for mowing down personnel that exceeds the weekly requirement established on The Apprentice.

The firing of Steve Bannon is generally considered the work of General John Kelly, who brilliantly intuited that the first step toward turning the White House from internecine gang warfare into a functioning executive branch was to eliminate the loudest, most self-involved, most combative, most impulsive, and most ruthless egotists. This explains Kelly’s two first beheadings – Scaramucci and Bannon – but surely he must realize that if he pursues this logic, it leads to the inexorable conclusion that the key person he must fire is, uh, Donald Trump.

The inclination is to view the termination of Bannon as a powerful signal from Kelly that he is determined to end the anarchy at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. However, you would not have expected a general to be the one who makes the mistake of winning the battle but potentially losing the war.

Cutting Steve Bannon loose might make progressives and even traditional Republicans feel good for a news cycle, but if there was ever a person to muzzle with a bear hug, this guy is it. Torching Steve Bannon puts a fissionable nuclear isotope with a world class chip on his shoulder back in the control room at a media organization that makes Fox News look like Huntley Brinkley.  Muscling the Mooch out the end of the White House alimentary canal was great hard-ass theatre, but when it comes to Bannon, General Kelly may have wanted to think a bit harder – perhaps, as Dubya might say, with a bit more strategery.

You remember that old saying: “Hold your friends close, hold your enemies closer, and hold psychopaths long enough and tightly enough so that someone can tie them up in a straightjacket.”

It took Bannon the length of an Uber ride to be back in the editorial chair at Breitbart News, and no sooner had he settled in that he began launching ICBMs as fast and as erratically as Kim Jung-un. First was the vaguely orgasmic quote to The Weekly Standard, in which he noted that he was “jacked up” to be back at Breitbart, and once again had his “hands on his weapons.” It was The Mooch, you’ll recall, who had commented on Bannon’s rare physiological gift for self-gratification. We sense a pattern.

Then there was Bannon’s mildly enigmatic pronouncement that “the Trump Presidency that we fought for is over.” The clear intent here was to convey to Bannon’s faithful that Trump has somehow sold out, and allowed the “White House Democrats” to forcibly wrest the steering wheel on the ship of state from Bannon’s more deserving hands. Still and all, Bannon’s message that Donald Trump is not alt right by me seemed odd at the end of a week in which Trump had been tarred as a neo-Nazi sympathizer, a white supremacist enabler, and a supporter of anti-Semites. Geez, what does a racist have to do to please Breitbart, anyway?

The media was consumed with speculation about who in Trump’s White House would be targeted by the Bannonized Breitbart. However, the far more interesting topic is what Bannon intends to do with Breitbart.  Our bet: Bannon is planning to primary Fox News.

You know… to “primary” a candidate is when the far right or alt right decides that a Republican legislator is not being conservative enough, so they run an even more conservative candidate to challenge the incumbent in the party’s primary election.  The mere threat of being “primaried” makes many a Republican lawmaker think twice about not toeing the hard-right line. Well, the bet here is that Steve Bannon sees a huge opportunity in the recently splintered Fox News. Bannon wants to make Breitbart the home of true conservatives, and one way to do it is to discredit, diminish, and demonize Fox. He’s going to primary Fox News.

Poor Fox News. This is the pioneering network that invented the world-changing idea that a television news show is not obligated to broadcast news accurately. Unlike ABC, NBC, and CBS, which all are governed by the Federal Communications Commission, cable network Fox News does not have to worry about losing its broadcast license. Moreover, ABC, NBC, and CBS News were born during the period in television history when the best way to win the ratings war was to be the most trusted and most informative network. With only three networks fighting for the entire news pie, the one that was most appealing to the broad center was the one that would win. Walter Cronkite – “the most trusted man in America” – also won the weekly Nielsen ratings, and made the most money for his company.

But Fox changed all that, co-opting the imagery and authority of silver-haired white men sitting behind big “anchor man” desks, and thereby creating the illusion that the Fox version of the news was every bit as responsible and truthful as the networks. Fox changed the economic model, too. Instead of being profitable by being the most broadly trusted news source, Fox positioned itself to a niche market: conservative viewers. If The New York Times promised “all the news that’s fit to print,” Fox offered conservatives “all the news to fit your views.”

But today’s Fox News is taking incoming from every conceivable side. Founder Roger Ailes died shortly after his reputation was ruined by charges of serial sexually predatory behavior toward his employees, and soon after Fox icon Bill O’Reilly lost his leading-man prime time slot for similar allegations. The network’s rising star, Megan Kelly, bolted for NBC. Fox host Eric Bolling was recently suspended for, ah, pulling an Andrew Weiner. You get the drift.

In the past week, the network found itself splintered in its reaction to Donald Trump’s handling of Charlottesville.  Fox CEO James Murdoch issued a scathing criticism of Trump, and popular anchor Shepard Smith publicly announced on his broadcast that Fox could not find a single Republican who would come on his show to defend Trump. African-American Fox host Eboni Williams ripped Trump to shreds in a scathing commentary in which she labeled the President as “cowardly and dangerous.” The rift at Fox was made clear as old reliable white sycophants Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity, never ones to bite the hand that feeds them, defended the President relentlessly.

In short, Fox appears a bit adrift. Its endemic misogynistic culture has created wave after wave of scandal. With Ailes gone, it does not seem to really know whether it is time to grow up into a real news organization or simply become a better propaganda arm. It does not know whether it is supposed to be blindly loyal to President Trump, or whether its role is to advocate for conservative ideology.  It does not know when the Republican Party ends and the Tea Party begins, let alone where conservative ideology stops and the alt right picks up. In short, it perfectly reflects the fracture of the Republican Party, and is every bit as dysfunctional as a result. 

Fox is, in this regard, exactly where Steve Bannon wants them to be as he sets out to outfox Fox. For all the ambiguity and uncertainty at Fox, Breitbart is the opposite. It’s mission is singular and ruthless, and it takes no prisoners. Breitbart is the singular and unfiltered voice of the alt right.  

Perhaps Bannon’s brief and unsuccessful tenure in the White House and Ailes’ demise may have made Bannon realize that what he really wants to be is the next Ailes: the kingmaker who controls the Republican Party by functioning as the conduit to and from its ever-more animated bedrock conservative base.

In Trump, Bannon had the perfect vessel: a powerful demagogue who had an intuitive sense for populist rage, bigotry, and fear… but who lacked an organized, coherent philosophy through which he could turn voter support into actionable legislative programs.  Bannon disciplined Trump into core campaign themes: economic nationalism, military isolationism, and unrelenting savage attacks on Hilary Clinton’s trustworthiness.  Trump’s campaign was in shambles when Bannon arrived, and Bannon has every reason to believe that he is the reason Trump won.

Like Ailes before him, Bannon sees the opportunity to institutionalize this role as “kingmaker” by controlling the media that connects with the base. This means building Breitbart News as rapidly as possible, and challenging the pre-eminence of Fox News as the voice of the right.

If that’s indeed the goal, here are five things one might can expect from Bannon in the very near future.
  1. Rebrand the “alt right.” The term “alt right” suggests that it is a fringe group, not the heart of the party. Expect Bannon to come up with some new term – the “True Right,” the “Authentic Right” – that attempts to position Breitbart as the home of true ideological believers.
  2. Hand in glove with this effort will be an attempt to reposition Fox News as merely the mouthpiece of the traditional Republican beltway establishment.  Bannon will characterize Fox News as being loyal to party and personality, but not to ideology.  Fox will endure a barrage of fake news that attempts to stamp it as the network of Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, and aging establishment dogma.
  3. Expect some version of Breitbart TV soon. Disclosure: as this piece was being finished for posting, we saw today’s New York Times article on a similar topic. The Times journalist seemed to feel that television was not in the game plan for Breitbart, but it is hard to see how Breitbart could expand its scope and impact dramatically without the broad reach of television. Sure, this will require big money, but that is where the billionaire Mercer family comes in. It was of more than passing interest that The New York Times piece did not mention the words “alt right” a single time, which suggests that they are not seeing the opportunity as a classic exercise in market segmentation.  Bannon is out to segment Fox’s audience just as the original Fox segmented network news.
  4. Welcome back, Bill O’Reilly.  A short-cut to an instantaneous large audience would be to give Bill O’Reilly the 9:00 prime time slot, and watch the Fox faithful come home to Papa.Hannity and Carlson would then be hot commodities in a bidding war.
  5. Finally: if we thought that Fox News owned the market in sensationalism and fake news, get ready for master classes in fictional narrative. Breitbart manufactures fake news by the gross. But if you are trying to build audience fast, you will be looking to make headlines with bigger, bolder, shocking news stories that demand the attention of the establishment news industry. Watch out, Jared Kushner… you are about to become the red meat Breitbart needs to break through into the big time. If Steve Bannon knows anything that hasn’t gotten out about Russian collusion, Breitbart will bleed it out until Kushner himself is out. 
The bottom line: we can soon expect a curated news channel for every audience: Breitbart for the Alt Right, Fox for the Republican establishment, CNN for the center-left, and MSNBC for the Bernie-Baby progressives. And yes, this will simply make the world ever more parochially trapped in a downward spiral of ignorance born of symbiotic dependency and echo chambers: I watch Fox because Fox portrays reality in the way that I agree with.

And what does all this mean for Donald Trump?

A heavily funded, amped-up Breitbart with both an axe to wield and an axe to grind is nothing but trouble for Donald Trump.

At best, Bannon will selectively support Trump when supporting Trump is in his interest.

At worst, he will exercise his vengeful streak by gleefully lobbing grenades at the White House moderates who did him in.

But if our suspicions are correct – that Bannon’s goal is to become a gatekeeper and intermediary between Trump and Trump’s vital base – then Breitbart could actually become Donald Trump’s biggest headache.  We have noted repeatedly that Trump’s every calculation – from Charlottesville to global warming to immigration policy -- is rooted in his existential need to preserve his base. He does not want Breitbart to be creating the scorecard on how well he is keeping his promises… but that is pretty much exactly what Bannon will do. Bannon will hold Trump’s feet to the alt right’s ideological fire, and Breitbart will scream bloody murder if it feels Trump is straying from the alt right catechism.

To a White House run by a general who appears to be trying to move Trump towards becoming a more practical and reasoned negotiator and deal maker, Breitbart will be more an antagonist than ally, testing the loyalty of Trump’s most essential base, and making Trump ever more vulnerable to being primaried by one or more of the Republicans who already smell blood in the water.

Bannon will get his revenge. Fox News and Donald Trump are both about to learn a very painful lesson: Live by fake news, die by fake news.

Because Steve Bannon isn’t very fair, and he sure as hell does not appear to be balanced.

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